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8 Jun, 2020 20:20

Abolish police? History shows it’s a terrible idea, but obvious solution doesn’t fit the narrative

Abolish police? History shows it’s a terrible idea, but obvious solution doesn’t fit the narrative

Activists protesting across the US are increasingly demanding abolishing police departments altogether. Ironically, one of the alternatives they offer sounds just like the modern police, whose origin they wrongly insist is racist.

The city council of Minneapolis, Minnesota has just secured a veto-proof majority in favor of the proposal to disband its police department. It was Minneapolis PD officer Derek Chauvin whose actions sparked the protests last month, when he was filmed kneeling on the neck of George Floyd until the African-American man died.

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While the campaign for abolishing or de-funding police is intensely emotionally satisfying for the activists, there are few practical proposals as to how to go about it. Even the Minneapolis councilors didn’t say when they might get rid of their police, or what they wish to replace it with. More education and social workers are being mentioned as possible alternatives, but at the end of the day someone still needs to put the 'force' into law enforcement.

No libertarian utopia

Libertarians have already proposed entrusting the job to private security companies, arguing that they would have “skin in the game” and an incentive to de-escalate and prevent crime, rather than punish it after the fact as the police currently do.

That’s not exactly what the activists have in mind, though, as they have spent years denouncing “for-profit policing” of financial penalties and asset forfeiture. They are also politically aligned with the party that champions the socialization of everything, from healthcare onward – and presumably policing as well.

It is unclear how profit-based security is going to apply the law equally, given the natural impulse to cater to the paying clientele and zero obligation to anyone else. In the “best” case scenario, US cities end up like Baltimore, with its African-American community effectively abandoned to violent crime.

The worst-case scenario is something like Blackwater. The mercenary company contracted by the US military to provide security work in Iraq ended up killing 17 civilians and injuring another 20 in the infamous September 2007 incident in occupied Baghdad. 

When ‘community’ policing means inequality

Another idea being floated about is “community” policing, presumably involving redirecting the money from police departments to neighborhood organizations that would be tasked with keeping order. Assuming somehow this doesn’t devolve into outright vigilantism, the closest historic parallel would be the Ottoman Empire’s approach to governing the millets, minority communities strictly defined not by skin color, but by religion.

One illustration of how this worked in practice can be found in a book published in 1842 by Matija Mazuranic, an Austrian subject who visited the Ottoman province of Bosnia in 1839-40 and wrote about its culture and customs. Writing about the treatment of adulterers, Mazuranic notes the different standards of punishment depending on the perpetrator’s identity. 

A Christian caught with a Muslim woman he is given a choice of converting to Islam and marrying her, but if he refuses or she is already married, he is to be impaled on a stake until death. A Muslim man committing adultery with another Muslim’s wife also gets impaled – but only after the third time he’s caught. As for what happens if a Muslim man violates a Christian woman, Mazuranic chillingly writes, “but a Turk can go to a Christian woman whenever he pleases, as there is no court for him.”

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Not slave patrols, but partners with public

Reporting on the push to abolish police departments, Reuters asserts that “in some southern states [they] grew out of patrols organized to catch runaway slaves.” The theory that US police originated from “slave patrols” sounds pleasing to activists eager to redefine the country’s past through the prism of the New York Times’s 1619 Project, but it’s not grounded in history.

Modern policing was invented in 1829 in London, where there were no slaves. It was designed to cope with the challenges of keeping peace and order in a city whose population exploded due to the industrial revolution. The first US cities to establish their own forces were Boston (1838) and New York (1845). They, too, followed the outline of policing principles established in London by its first police commissioners, Charles Rowan and Richard Mayne. 

According to these principles, police were supposed to prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to military repression. Their power was supposed to be based on public approval and respect, and the cooperation of the public in ensuring the laws are observed. The more of that cooperation existed, the less necessary would it be to use force.

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The constabulary would win public favor “not by pandering to public opinion; but by constantly demonstrating absolutely impartial service to law,” and applying the law equally to anyone “without regard to their wealth or social standing,” according to Rowan and Mayne. Force would be used only when persuasion fails, and only to the minimum extent necessary. Police were not to usurp powers of judgment and punishment, reserved for the judiciary. They were defined as members of the public paid to give “full time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen.” 

The final principle was that “the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.

Search for solutions doesn’t fit the Narrative 

It is readily apparent the police in the US, and even the UK, have changed greatly since then, and become more militarized in their approach. To be fair, so has the population around them, in particular when it comes to obeying laws and upholding order. As, too, have elected officials who were supposed to be the way for the population to hold the police accountable, but ended up governing the most problematic cities for decades in a sort of hereditary oligarchy.

The obvious solution that presents itself here is to restore the nine principles to policing, while making the public and the politicians also live up to their end of the bargain. That would actually go a long way to prevent what happened to George Floyd from being repeated. It doesn’t fit the political and media narratives currently dominant in the US, however, so don’t hold your breath.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.